This review was originally published on Easter Sunday 2017.
One of the best books I read last year was Getting High by Kester Brewin. I have been wanting to write a review, but it is an unusual – and quite brilliant – book that seemed to demand a little more. So instead of a normal review I have used it as a launchpad to write on Easter, and the burial of a seminal story.
Getting High is subtitled A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Dream of Flight, an homage to Hunter S Thompson’s seminal Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. In similar vein to Thompson, Getting High is in large part a retrospective on the 1960s. Brewin unfurls a beguiling tale of American counterculture: experimental drug use, cybernetics and space travel whirling through like a tornado, tearing up the post-war years and whisking a new generation to the heavens. But like all stars they fall; a decade ends in disappointment as the revolution peters out.
If that alone was the book it would be worth a read. The quality and breadth of research makes for a fascinating and dizzying account. But Getting High is really something else: it is an autobiography, of sorts. Woven through each chapter is Brewin’s own story, from an anxious childhood and family trauma, through adult religion and addiction to flight, to a great and sustained come-down. I have struggled to review the book, more than anything, because in it its own iconoclastic way it has the air of something intimate, something I fear to touch.
Nevertheless I shall say some review-y things. Brewin writes more like an artist than an author; there is a disarming lightness to the movement of his thought, with images built up through a quick succession of thin layers, and then a leap of thick colour to glance again from a new perspective. Paragraphs are dense with complex resonances and ideas are emotional and aesthetic before they are intellectual. Narrative matters, and so therefore does the journey. This is a literary work, a work of crafted movement.
Brewin is known, in part, for his work among the loose discipline of Radical Theology, which, at its more radical edges, has explored life after the death of God – meaning (more or less) the death of any certainty of future or meaning. Getting High is a contribution to that conversation, but from a very different genre to the theological or philosophical works that dominate it. He concludes, with some force, that life must be lived in spite of the diss-illusion it requires; that creativity and courage are best wrought when facing into the abyss that strips us naked and pronounces us alone in the universe. To not face the abyss – the entirely understandable pretension to know or hold or demand in such a way as to imagine our preposterous human limitations away – is to succumb to the dream of flight. Getting high is the opposite of being grounded, and only acceptance of our limits will save us.
Uncertainty, limitation, vulnerability, sobriety… these are the forces of gravity in Brewin’s imagination. Yet they are not final words. Gravity is not so strong that we cannot get up again and walk. We just cannot fly.
The gravity of Easter
I’m writing this review at Easter, because that is where the book ends. Brewin navigates his final post-landing taxi with a reflection on resurrection:
‘I’m coming to understand that, in a world like this, talk of atheism or the “death of God” is absurd. Take one look in an Apple Store, or one peek into a fashion magazine, and there are gods and angelic beings everywhere, objects of a worship promising purity and perfection.’
‘The problem of God is that God keeps on being resurrected.’
So much for Happy Easter! We’re Getting High again. The celebration of resurrection is a problem, and it’s not just a ‘Christian’ one. Our obsession with God turns us to the heavens, leads us to transcendence, spins us around in whirls of rising hubris – and not just ‘God’ by name; atheists resurrect new gods for every one disavowed. We all do it every time we put faith in a power beyond ourselves that promises we can overcome our inherent, too-human limitations.
We’re all Getting High at Easter, so-called ‘religious’ or not. It is the story of the human condition. We need a crucifixion to end it.
Brewin’s alternative story goes that way. ‘For me, the only god I can speak of now is the one who chose to descend and die, being broken up and consumed in the act. In the upside down Christianity I’ve been fumbling towards, resurrection is the life that comes after this divine death, this breaking of the illusion that we will become gods.’
Given my own misgivings about Christian imagination and my fascination with biblical narratives as sites of conflicted meanings I want more. But Getting High ends, beautifully, tentatively, full of grief and steeled by courage.
I have held from critique. For me, Getting High is a journey to take, rather than a set of ideas to pick apart. I am simply very grateful to have encountered such a profoundly vulnerable book.
It does invite a response, however. At least that is how I have experienced it. So let me take up the Easter theme and tend to the gravity of the tale…
Jesus Gets High
I have spent a long time reflecting on this question from biblical scholar, Stephen Moore, with which I think Kester Brewin would identify:
‘If Christian imagination is to be ethically, as well as intellectually, adequate, might it not require… a conception of the divine sphere as other than Empire writ large?’
What preoccupies Moore’s question is how Jesus, a crucified peasant non-entity from Galilee can become, through some kind of fantastical metamorphosis, the symbol of the same empire that had him executed. What started out as an anti-imperial resistance movement against Rome got absorbed and validated by Rome. How does that happen?
To answer – or at least begin to answer – I have turned to the postcolonial theory of Homi Bhabha. Central to his understanding of colonial identity is ‘ambivalence’. The colonising power says ‘be like us’, but at the same time they also say ‘don’t be like us’, because then you would have the power to rule. Of course the ‘not like us’ is disavowed, but it still carries weight. The American Dream follows exactly this structure. ‘Everyone can make it here in America’ is the official line, but the unofficial line is that some people need to not make it in order for ‘making it’ to still be a thing. The unofficial line is disavowed. You have to pretend it doesn’t exist.
If we take Brewin’s insinuation that the Dream of Flight is the offer of the gods, we can see the same ambivalence at work. ‘You can touch the heavens and live forever’ might be the official line. ‘But only on our terms, if you sell your soul’ is what is equally true but disavowed. It’s the very opening story of the Hebrew Bible. Adam and Eve aren’t thrown out of Eden for eating the fruit; they are thrown out because they might become like gods and live forever.
‘Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden.’ (3:22-23)
This is the ambivalent, double-mindedness of imperial power. It’s why people are so rightly suspicious of God. It’s why people should be way more suspicious of Global Consumer Capitalism and all the ways it has reclothed God with a different name. Buy this, think this, do this, believe this, want this, wear this; hate these, love those, hire these, fear those, save these, burn those. All those promises, so little actually delivered. All those platitudes, so much division.
I’m interested in the ending to Mark’s Gospel. According to pretty much every Bible, the original ends at verse 8, and then verses 9 – 20 were added later. In the original, three women go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, wondering who will roll away the stone. When they arrive they find the stone already moved and a man in white clothes who tells them that Jesus has gone ahead of them to Galilee. And they are so scared they run away and don’t say anything to anyone. The End.
Somebody (perhaps understandably) thought they could do better. So they added a few appearances from Jesus and some tough talk about picking up snakes and drinking poison and healing the sick – stuff like that. Oh, and then Jesus gets really high. Right up in heaven, in fact.
One ending has Jesus out and about, unseen but rumoured in Northern margins. The other has him seen and seated as an imperial power.
That is why in the end Jesus was co-opted by Rome. Because for all his revolutionary resistance, he’s still just a bit too much like Caesar.
I like Brewin’s image of a god descending to be broken and consumed. It is an answer to the question – of how to conceive of the divine as ‘other than Empire writ-large.’ I’m just not sure I believe it. And I’m not convinced Brewin does either. The whole focus of Getting High is the overwhelming pull of the gods: the problem, as Brewin so succinctly puts it, ‘is that God keeps on being resurrected.’
When Radical Theology aspires to the Death of God – or more than that, asserts the Death of God, even exposes the never there-ness of God – I cannot help but think of the ending to Mark’s Gospel and the co-option of Jesus by Rome. What is radical, uncertain and insufficient tends, in the end, towards hubris. The Death of God is another way to Get High, to wield the ultimate hammer. ‘I die’ says the god who is broken and consumed. The knowledge that ‘I will rise again’ disavowed.
The dark side of the moon
I have become less interested in the Death of God than the elusion of God. It is a play on words, I suppose. Eluding God: life unseen, and un-controlled, by God. Perhaps also reimagining a ‘weak’ God as elusive in the face of imperial might.
Brewin writes, ‘The Moon is full, weakly pushing back the darkness, carrying on its illusion of light. Illudere, the Latin verb to mock. So many illusions I have had to break, so many ways I’ve been mocked by the above, believing the myth of its illumination.’
And yet the moon does not only mock those who dream of flight. Living as it does under the bright eye of a surveillant power it does not imagine the overthrow of the Sun; were it to try it would discover its solar neighbour was subject to greater forces of gravity and chemistry. But it does preserve for itself an elusive Dark Side, free from its master’s gaze.
An empty tomb. At least when Caesar is looking.
Bhabha extends the notion of ambivalence to the metonym as a site of resistance. A metonym is a word – generally a physical object – that stands in discourse for a whole lot more. The White House is a good example in English. News reports will say ‘The White House says…’ and everyone knows they don’t mean the building started talking. It’s a metonym for the Office of the US President. Bhabha likes metonyms because they are also ambivalent; everyone has to play along for them to work.
The empty tomb is a metonym for resurrection. But as the ending to Mark’s Gospel shows, it is extremely ambivalent.
Resurrecting gods is how the Empire works. One promise dies and seven more come to take its place. Gods die, gods are reborn, we Get High. The empty tomb is what they expect. So… the empty tomb is what they get. Jesus dancing in Galilee, Jesus sat on a throne – both, in fact, are imperial narratives, one stated, one disavowed (not allowed in the original). The metonym speaks, shouts, loudly on Easter morn in one great clanging hallelujah! He is risen!
But there, right under the gaze of the surveillant power is a Dark Side. In an elusive, dank corner of the tomb is a decaying body. A community gathers around, kneeling, quietly murmurimg their songs of grief. Against the Imperial demand for eternal life they defiantly face death. And then, slowly, courageously, they rise again to face the task to which they are now entrusted: ‘to build a just and peaceful and sustainable Earth for those who are now and those who will come.’
In conclusion, the iconic image from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing:
‘There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.… And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.’
And then to Brewin the final word:
‘This was a resurrection I could live with: not that when we die we are raised again, but that those who live on are able to be lifted, can get up from the grave-side and find life once we are gone. The most important task we have is not to achieve our own ascension, but to live well enough that those who come after can, once they have grieved, rise again.’